A warm bath and a good massage! Is there anything better than that at the end of a hectic day? People often dream about SPA and wellness treatments when they need a remedy for their intense lives.
Although the ancient people were far less stressed out than we are, they seemed to indulge in different SPA procedures ON A DAILY BASIS. On the top of that, they got the heavenly treatments at a much more affordable price than we do today!
Where does the abbreviation SPA come from?
There is a variety of hypothesis, but one not so popular theory claims that it was named after the Belgium town of Spa. The city was known for its healing waters even by Romans who then called it Aquae Spadanae. Since the 16th century, the Roman medicinal bathing habits were revived and at the end of the century, the Englishman William Slingsby, who had visited Spaw before, built a well around a chalybeate (containing iron) spring in North Yorkshire initiating the establishment of the city Harrogate as a SPA town. Soon the resort gained the name “The English Spa” and started promoting the usage of the word SPA as a generic description.
One other theory presents SPA as an acronym (an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of a word or of the phrase’s words) of the Latin expressions “Sanitas Per Aquas” or “Salus Per Aquam” both meaning “Health trough water(s).”
Salus was one of the most archaic deities of the Ancient Rome. She equated the ancient Greek goddess Hygieia (from where hygiene derives) and was venerated as the Roman goddess of safety, well-being, health, and good fortune of both the individual and the state. Salus had a temple in one of the four summits of the Quirinal hill (called Collis Salutaris) and represented the human welfare as an amalgam of being healthy, having soundness of the mind, and enjoying prosperity.
SPA treatments in the Roman baths
Roman Bath, Georg Pauli, 1882
Massage is working and acting with hands on a body using pressure. Medical research has shown that it relieves pain, reduces depression and anxiety, and improves the heart rate. The various benefits of the massage are the reason it is the most popular service at a SPA. The procedure is so important that it is considered as a cornerstone of those facilities; to the extent that today if there is no a massage service, there is no a SPA center.
The Romans, well-known for their bathing habits being not just a mere bathing, have early understood that they could profit from massages in their public and private bathhouses. The ancient Greeks have already applied such procedures to the Greek athletes, but during the time of the Roman Empire, they were massively introduced to the Roman baths.
In the book I, letter 56, Seneca the Younger (1st century AD) gives us a vivid picture what was like to live close to bath facilities in ancient Rome. Among the sounds coming from the establishment, the annoying noises of a person giving a massage are described. All the cracks and slaps of various hand techniques were probably too much for the writer who was trying to study at that point, but their description leaves us a great testimonial of the massage procedures at the Roman baths. In fact, massage was provided not only at the bathhouses. The Greek physician Galen, who lived and practiced medicine in the first century AD in the Roman Empire, used massage therapy to treat different types of physical injuries and diseases.
… when Aphrodite saw him (Anchises ), she loved him, and terribly desire seized her in her heart… There she went in (her precinct in Cyprus) … and there the Graces bathed her with heavenly oil such as blooms upon the bodies of the eternal gods —oil divinely sweet, which she had by her, filled with fragrance.
Homeric Hymn 5 to Aphrodite, transl. Hugh G. Evelyn-White
In the SPA procedure known as Aromatherapy, plant minerals and plant oils are used to benefit the cognitive, psychological, and physical well-being of a person. One of the most popular methods of application is the topical one, where essential oils are added to different bath and massage procedures.
Was a bath possible without fragrance and oils in ancient Rome? No, not at all! As the soap was not largely known, its role was performed by different oils. The Roman way of bathing supposed to rub oil into the skin and then to scrape out the dirt with a special implement – strigil. There was no exact time for applying this procedure in the Roman baths; some people preferred to do it before going to exercise, other after using the hot basins, and some right before they leave the establishment.
From the five-volume book “De Materia Medica” of Pedanius Dioscorides (Roman physician of Greek origin lived in the 1st century AD), we know that ancient Romans were quite aware of the properties of the essential oils and used a large variety of them. In the first book of his work, Dioscorides described different aromatic oils, the plants they come from as well as the medicinal products they provide - unguents and ointments. Some of the most popular oils mentioned in use were cardamom, nard, cinnamon, mastic, pine resin, quince, apple, peach, pear, plum and others.
The anointing in the Roman baths was equally practiced by men and women. It was performed by special slaves called unctores (from Latin verb "ungo" – to smear, to anoint). The main ingredient used for that purpose was olive oil mixed with various plant-based ingredients (flowers, leaves, seeds, or resins) which imparted specific aroma to the ointment.
3. Soaking SPA procedures
Courtesy of the photo: Cees W. Passchier, Driek van Opstal, and Wilke D. Schram
Soaking in (mainly hot) water is considered as the backbone of the SPA treatments. One of the most popular procedures today is known as a ‘Hot spring” and it consists of two types: Onsen (Japanese Hot Spring) and Thermae (Roman Hot Springs).
Onsen is the Japanese word for hot spring and is used to describe bathing facilities constructed around natural hot springs in Japan. The volcanic nature of that country provides plenty of such springs. Traditionally, they were used as public baths where men and women bathed together in the past. Today, onsen are often spa and touristic centers that provide recreation and healing through the use of geothermal waters with a high mineral composition.
Thermae is a term that derives from the Greek adjective “thermos” – hot. It was used by the ancient Romans to describe their private or public bathhouses, quite popular along the vast territory of the Roman Empire.
The Roman baths were a complex of different pools and SPA facilities. One of the central rooms was known as caldarium where a hot plunge bath took place. A huge heating system (hypocaust) was used to warm the room as well as the hot basins. The ancient Romans regularly immersed in the hot pools and even alternated it with immersing in cold water pools in an adjacent room.
Today, contrast bathing therapy is largely applied in modern SPA centers. Sometimes, it is referred to as a hot/cold immersion therapy. There is even a specific procedure known as a “Roman Bathtub” which supposes soaking in a hot tub full of heated water and used for hydrotherapy and relaxation. In many modern bath stores, Roman Bathtub is also sold as a luxurious item for you home bath.
The word sauna is Finnish and indicates a small room for dry or wet heat sessions where people experience excessive sweating as a way of detoxification of their bodies. In modern SPA facilities, sauna is often in an immediate proximity of a fitness hall or place for physical exercising and the closest access to it is at a gym. That positioning is directly influenced from the Roman baths where the palaestra (a ground for sport activities) was an integral part of the complex and was usually located close to the warm bath areas. As mentioned above, the caldarium was regularly heated and in one of its corners, right next to the brazier, there was a room called laconicum which functioned pretty much like a sauna. The room was the driest and the hottest point of the Roman bathhouse and provided the same treatment a modern sauna does.
5. Steam bath
A steam bath is a steam-filled room that offers SPA procedures close to that of a sauna. The difference between them is usually due to the source of the steam. In a classical sauna, it is created by throwing water on a stove that adds humidity to the sweating process, while the reason for the steam in a steam bath is usually a dry heating. By their way of operation, the steam baths are one step closer to the original steam rooms used in the Roman baths - laconica. They were also referred to as sudatoria (places for sweating).
According to Vitruvius (1st century BC), the laconicum was usually a circular room with niches in the axes. It was covered by a conical roof with a circular opening at the top from which a brazen shield is suspended by chains, capable of being so lowered and raised as to regulate the temperature.
Today, natural steam baths still exist, and often still use similar systems that the ancient Romans used, which contain pipes and pumps that bring water up. Heaters are also now used to maintain warm temperatures in the baths.
So, next time, when you visit a SPA center, remember all those Romans who have done the very same thing so long ago, and smile. Nothing could prove more beneficial than a two thousand-years-old tradition established by people who have transformed the bathing into an act of art.
Ancient Roman laconicum from the town of Civitavecchia, Italy